Zantac Lawsuit

Researching drug company and regulatory malfeasance for over 16 years
Humanist, humorist

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

GlaxoSmithKline Money Trail Down Under Part 2

When international pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline wanted to push more deeply into the Australian market with its hepatitis B vaccine, it did not hesitate.

It used a technique that had already proven so successful in France that it convinced that country's population at large there was a huge threat of contracting hepatitis B and saw a huge jump in profits.

So in 1995 it used its public relations company Hill and Knowlton to set up the Viral Hepatitis Prevention Board to tell Australians how at risk they were and help lobby for government approval for universal immunisation of children for hepatitis B.

About 10 medical experts, including Dr Tilman Ruff, who would later go to work for GlaxoSmithKline as medical director of its vaccine division, were recruited to make up the board.

Their airfares and other expenses were paid to attend board meetings around the country organised by Hill and Knowlton, while material warning of the risks of hepatitis B prepared by the public relations company was released under the board's name.

"The idea basically came from GlaxoSmithKline (then SmithKline Beecham) who used Hill and Knowlton as their PR company and they basically did quite a lot of the organising, they provided the secretariat and so on for the meetings," admits board chairwoman Dr Sandy Thompson.

"It always is a little bit of a difficult relationship, I suppose, because clearly they are in the business of wanting to sell vaccines."

The campaign was a success. The Federal Government announced $14 million funding for hepatitis B immunisation of pre-adolescents in 1997 and all infants by 2000.

But GlaxoSmithKline also had a vaccine against hepatitis A and so the board began targeting the risks of that version of the virus, just as its European counterpart had done a few years earlier.

In July last year the board issued a 14-page booklet sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline and prepared by Hill and Knowlton, warning child care workers they were at risk of catching hepatitis A if they were not immunised.

The booklet made no mention that GlaxoSmithKline made the hepatitis A vaccine, which costs $120 for a two-dose course of injections.

The booklet also warned of the dangers from measles, rubella and chickenpox, for which GlaxoSmithKline also markets vaccines.

In April this year a member of the hepatitis prevention board, Professor Graham Cooksley from Royal Brisbane Hospital, chaired a satellite symposium in Sydney funded with a grant from GlaxoSmithKline on the topic: "Should we move towards universal vaccination for hepatitis A?"

Dr Thompson says the Viral Hepatitis Prevention Board has now "basically gone into recess" because members felt "we had run our course a little bit".

She said board members had been keen to try to do something in the area of hepatitis C, but this had created a "difficult issue" with GlaxoSmithKline, because the company did not have a vaccine it could sell.

"That wasn't something that GSK had any vested interest in," she said.

But Dr Thompson rejects any suggestion that there was any conflict of interest surrounding her role with the board.

"I work in public health, so there was no conflict for me in trying to prevent viral hepatitis," she said. "I didn't see that as conflict of interest. Immunisation is one of the success stories of public health. We need to promote immunisation, we need to use vaccines effectively. So I didn't feel any conflict of interest.

"I know often these boards and expert panels people get paid, but basically with VHPB we didn't get paid.

"I think we were just pleased to have the opportunity to do a bit of lobbying in an area that most of us believed in."

GlaxoSmithKline has also targeted another potential growth market for its hepatitis vaccines through a second organisation it funded, the Travel Health Advisory Group.

In September the group released, through Hill and Knowlton, details of a survey funded by GlaxoSmithKline showing that more than half of the Australians travelling overseas did not seek medical advice about the risks of such diseases as hepatitis A and B.

The press release quoted the chairman of the group, Dr Bernie Hudson from Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, warning of the dangers of the two types of hepatitis.

It did not mention that the survey, originally published in the Medical Journal of Australia, had been funded by GlaxoSmithKline.

Dr Hudson did not return calls from The Age.

One of the members of the travel group is Viral Hepatitis Prevention Board member Dr Tilman, the medical head of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccine division.


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